State (polity)

For other uses, see State (disambiguation).
The frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan

A state is a type of polity that is an organized political community living under a single system of government.[1] States may or may not be sovereign. For instance, federated states are members of a federal union, and may have only partial sovereignty, but are, nonetheless, states.[1] Some states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony, in which ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.[2] States that are sovereign are known as sovereign states.

The term "state" can also refer to the secular branches of government within a state,[3] often as a manner of contrasting them with churches and civilian institutions.

Speakers of American English often use the terms state and government as synonyms,[note 1] with both words referring to an organized political group that exercises authority over a particular territory.[4]

Many human societies have been governed by states for millennia, but many have been stateless societies. Over time a variety of different forms developed, employing a variety of justifications of legitimacy for their existence (such as the divine right of kings, the theory of social contract, etc.). In the 21st century, the modern nation-state is the predominant form of state to which people are subjected.

Definition issues

There is no academic consensus on the most appropriate definition of the state.[5] The term "state" refers to a set of different, but interrelated and often overlapping, theories about a certain range of political phenomena.[6] The act of defining the term can be seen as part of an ideological conflict, because different definitions lead to different theories of state function, and as a result validate different political strategies.[7] According to Jeffrey and Painter, "if we define the 'essence' of the state in one place or era, we are liable to find that in another time or space something which is also understood to be a state has different 'essential' characteristics" [8]

The most commonly used definition is Max Weber's,[9][10][11][12][13] which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.[14][15] General categories of state institutions include administrative bureaucracies, legal systems, and military or religious organizations.[16]

Another commonly accepted definition of the state is the one given at the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States in 1933. It defined state as a space that possess the following : A permanent population, a defined territory and a government that is capable of maintaining effective control over the corresponding territory and of conducting International relations with other states.[17]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a state is "a. an organized political community under one government; a commonwealth; a nation. b. such a community forming part of a federal republic, esp the United States of America".[1]

Confounding the definition problem is that "state" and "government" are often used as synonyms in common conversation and even some academic discourse. According to this definition schema, the states are nonphysical persons of international law, governments are organizations of people.[18] The relationship between a government and its state is one of representation and authorized agency.[19]

Types of states

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. Other states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony where ultimate sovereignty lies in another state.[1][20] Many states are federated states which participate in a federal union. A federated state is a territorial and constitutional community forming part of a federation.[21] Such states differ from sovereign states, in that they have transferred a portion of their sovereign powers to a federal government.[1]

The state and government

See also: Government

A state can be distinguished from a government. The government is the particular group of people, the administrative bureaucracy that controls the state apparatus at a given time.[22][23][24] That is, governments are the means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments.[24] States are immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain coercive powers.[25]

Each successive government is composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making, and are separated by status and organization from the population as a whole. Their function is to enforce existing laws, legislate new ones, and arbitrate conflicts. In some societies, this group is often a self-perpetuating or hereditary class. In other societies, such as democracies, the political roles remain, but there is frequent turnover of the people actually filling the positions.[26]

States and nation-states

See also: Nation-state

States can also be distinguished from the concept of a "nation", where "nation" refers to a cultural-political community of people.

The state and civil society

In the classical thought, the state was identified with both political society and civil society as a form of political community, while the modern thought distinguished the nation state as a political society from civil society as a form of economic society.[27] Thus in the modern thought the state is contrasted with civil society.[28][29][30]

The man versus the state

Antonio Gramsci believed that civil society is the primary locus of political activity because it is where all forms of "identity formation, ideological struggle, the activities of intellectuals, and the construction of hegemony take place." and that civil society was the nexus connecting the economic and political sphere. Arising out of the collective actions of civil society is what Gramsci calls "political society", which Gramsci differentiates from the notion of the state as a polity. He stated that politics was not a "one-way process of political management" but, rather, that the activities of civil organizations conditioned the activities of political parties and state institutions, and were conditioned by them in turn.[31][32] Louis Althusser argued that civil organizations such as church, schools, and the family are part of an "ideological state apparatus" which complements the "repressive state apparatus" (such as police and military) in reproducing social relations.[33][34][35]

Jürgen Habermas spoke of a public sphere that was distinct from both the economic and political sphere.[36]

Given the role that many social groups have in the development of public policy, and the extensive connections between state bureaucracies and other institutions, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries of the state. Privatization, nationalization, and the creation of new regulatory bodies also change the boundaries of the state in relation to society. Often the nature of quasi-autonomous organizations is unclear, generating debate among political scientists on whether they are part of the state or civil society. Some political scientists thus prefer to speak of policy networks and decentralized governance in modern societies rather than of state bureaucracies and direct state control over policy.[37]

Theories of state function

Most political theories of the state can roughly be classified into two categories. The first are known as "liberal" or "conservative" theories, which treat capitalism as a given, and then concentrate on the function of states in capitalist society. These theories tend to see the state as a neutral entity separated from society and the economy. Marxist theories on the other hand, see politics as intimately tied in with economic relations, and emphasize the relation between economic power and political power. They see the state as a partisan instrument that primarily serves the interests of the upper class.[24]


Main article: Anarchism
IWW poster "Pyramid of Capitalist System" (c. 1911), depicting an anti-capitalist perspective on statist/capitalist social structures

Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state immoral, unnecessary, and harmful and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy.

Anarchists believe that the state is inherently an instrument of domination and repression, no matter who is in control of it. Anarchists note that the state possesses the monopoly on the legal use of violence. Unlike Marxists, anarchists believe that revolutionary seizure of state power should not be a political goal. They believe instead that the state apparatus should be completely dismantled, and an alternative set of social relations created, which are not based on state power at all.[38][39]

Various Christian anarchists, such as Jacques Ellul, have identified the State and political power as the Beast in the Book of Revelation.[40][41]

Marxist perspective

Marx and Engels were clear in that the communist goal was a classless society in which the state would have "withered away".[42] Their views are scattered throughout the Marx/Engels Collected Works and address past or the then extant state forms from an analytical or tactical viewpoint, not future social forms, speculation about which is generally anathema to groups considering themselves Marxist but who, not having conquered the existing state power(s) are not in the situation of supplying the institutional form of an actual society. To the extent that it makes sense, there is no single "Marxist theory of state", but rather many different "Marxist" theories that have been developed by adherents of Marxism.[43][44][45]

Marx's early writings portrayed the state as "parasitic", built upon the superstructure of the economy, and working against the public interest. He also wrote that the state mirrors class relations in society in general, acts as a regulator and repressor of class struggle, and acts as a tool of political power and domination for the ruling class.[46] The Communist Manifesto claimed that the state is nothing more than "a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.[43]

For Marxist theorists, the role of the non-socialist state is determined by its function in the global capitalist order. Ralph Miliband argued that the ruling class uses the state as its instrument to dominate society by virtue of the interpersonal ties between state officials and economic elites. For Miliband, the state is dominated by an elite that comes from the same background as the capitalist class. State officials therefore share the same interests as owners of capital and are linked to them through a wide array of social, economic, and political ties.[47]

Gramsci's theories of state emphasized that the state is only one of the institutions in society that helps maintain the hegemony of the ruling class, and that state power is bolstered by the ideological domination of the institutions of civil society, such as churches, schools, and mass media.[48]


See also: Polyarchy

Pluralists view society as a collection of individuals and groups, who are competing for political power. They then view the state as a neutral body that simply enacts the will of whichever groups dominate the electoral process.[49] Within the pluralist tradition, Robert Dahl developed the theory of the state as a neutral arena for contending interests or its agencies as simply another set of interest groups. With power competitively arranged in society, state policy is a product of recurrent bargaining. Although pluralism recognizes the existence of inequality, it asserts that all groups have an opportunity to pressure the state. The pluralist approach suggests that the modern democratic state's actions are the result of pressures applied by a variety of organized interests. Dahl called this kind of state a polyarchy.[50]

Pluralism has been challenged on the ground that it is not supported by empirical evidence. Citing surveys showing that the large majority of people in high leadership positions are members of the wealthy upper class, critics of pluralism claim that the state serves the interests of the upper class rather than equitably serving the interests of all social groups.[51][52]

Contemporary critical perspectives

Jürgen Habermas believed that the base-superstructure framework, used by many Marxist theorists to describe the relation between the state and the economy, was overly simplistic. He felt that the modern state plays a large role in structuring the economy, by regulating economic activity and being a large-scale economic consumer/producer, and through its redistributive welfare state activities. Because of the way these activities structure the economic framework, Habermas felt that the state cannot be looked at as passively responding to economic class interests.[53][54][55]

Michel Foucault believed that modern political theory was too state-centric, saying "Maybe, after all, the state is no more than a composite reality and a mythologized abstraction, whose importance is a lot more limited than many of us think." He thought that political theory was focusing too much on abstract institutions, and not enough on the actual practices of government. In Foucault's opinion, the state had no essence. He believed that instead of trying to understand the activities of governments by analyzing the properties of the state (a reified abstraction), political theorists should be examining changes in the practice of government to understand changes in the nature of the state.[56][57][58]

Heavily influenced by Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek neo-Marxist theorist argued that capitalist states do not always act on behalf of the ruling class, and when they do, it is not necessarily the case because state officials consciously strive to do so, but because the 'structural' position of the state is configured in such a way to ensure that the long-term interests of capital are always dominant. Poulantzas' main contribution to the Marxist literature on the state was the concept of 'relative autonomy' of the state. While Poulantzas' work on 'state autonomy' has served to sharpen and specify a great deal of Marxist literature on the state, his own framework came under criticism for its 'structural functionalism.'

State autonomy (institutionalism)

Main article: New institutionalism

State autonomy theorists believe that the state is an entity that is impervious to external social and economic influence, and has interests of its own.[59]

"New institutionalist" writings on the state, such as the works of Theda Skocpol, suggest that state actors are to an important degree autonomous. In other words, state personnel have interests of their own, which they can and do pursue independently of (at times in conflict with) actors in society. Since the state controls the means of coercion, and given the dependence of many groups in civil society on the state for achieving any goals they may espouse, state personnel can to some extent impose their own preferences on civil society.[60]

Theories of state legitimacy

States generally rely on a claim to some form of political legitimacy in order to maintain domination over their subjects.[61][62][63]

Divine right

Main article: Divine right of kings

The rise of the modern day state system was closely related to changes in political thought, especially concerning the changing understanding of legitimate state power and control. Early modern defenders of absolutism, such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin undermined the doctrine of the divine right of kings by arguing that the power of kings should be justified by reference to the people. Hobbes in particular went further to argue that political power should be justified with reference to the individual, not just to the people understood collectively. Both Hobbes and Bodin thought they were defending the power of kings, not advocating for democracy, but their arguments about the nature of sovereignty were fiercely resisted by more traditional defenders of the power of kings, such as Sir Robert Filmer in England, who thought that such defenses ultimately opened the way to more democratic claims.

Max Weber identified three main sources of political legitimacy in his works. The first, legitimacy based on traditional grounds is derived from a belief that things should be as they have been in the past, and that those who defend these traditions have a legitimate claim to power. The second, legitimacy based on charismatic leadership is devotion to a leader or group that is viewed as exceptionally heroic or virtuous. The third is rational-legal authority, whereby legitimacy is derived from the belief that a certain group has been placed in power in a legal manner, and that their actions are justifiable according to a specific code of written laws. Weber believed that the modern state is characterized primarily by appeals to rational-legal authority.[64][65][66]


The word state and its cognates in some other European languages (stato in Italian, estado in Spanish, état in French, Staat in German) ultimately derive from the Latin word status, meaning "condition" or "status."[67]

With the revival of the Roman law in 14th-century Europe, this Latin term came to refer to the legal standing of persons (such as the various "estates of the realm" - noble, common, and clerical), and in particular the special status of the king. The word also had associations with Roman ideas (dating back to Cicero) about the "status rei publicae", the "condition of public matters". In time, the word lost its reference to particular social groups and became associated with the legal order of the entire society and the apparatus of its enforcement.[68][Romans had a strong background in customs making the laws that were installed being ideal to keeping order and upholding it overall for justice.] <Laws and Customs under Rome,Caroline Humfress; 622917>.

In English, "state" came about as a contraction of the word "estate", which is similar to the old French estat and the modern French état, both of which signify that a person has status and therefore estate. The highest estates, generally those with the most wealth and social rank, were those that held power.[61]

The early 16th-century works of Machiavelli (especially The Prince) played a central role in popularizing the use of the word "state" in something similar to its modern sense.[69]


The earliest forms of the state emerged whenever it became possible to centralize power in a durable way. Agriculture and writing are almost everywhere associated with this process: agriculture because it allowed for the emergence of a social class of people who did not have to spend most of their time providing for their own subsistence, and writing (or an equivalent of writing, like Inca quipus) because it made possible the centralization of vital information.[70]

The first known states were created in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and others, but it is only in relatively modern times that states have almost completely displaced alternative "stateless" forms of political organization of societies all over the planet.[71] Roving bands of hunter-gatherers and even fairly sizable and complex tribal societies based on herding or agriculture have existed without any full-time specialized state organization, and these "stateless" forms of political organization have in fact prevailed for all of the prehistory and much of the history of the human species and civilization.[71]

Initially states emerged over territories built by conquest in which one culture, one set of ideals and one set of laws have been imposed by force or threat over diverse nations by a civilian and military bureaucracy.[71] Currently, that is not always the case and there are multinational states, federated states and autonomous areas within states.

Since the late 19th century, virtually the entirety of the world's inhabitable land has been parcelled up into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states. Earlier, quite large land areas had been either unclaimed or uninhabited, or inhabited by nomadic peoples who were not organised as states. However, even within present-day states there are vast areas of wilderness, like the Amazon rainforest, which are uninhabited or inhabited solely or mostly by indigenous people (and some of them remain uncontacted). Also, there are states which do not hold de facto control over all of their claimed territory or where this control is challenged. Currently the international community comprises around 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of which are represented in the United Nations.

Pre-historic stateless societies

Main article: Stateless societies

For most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of large inequalities in economic and political power.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold writes:

It is not enough to observe, in a now rather dated anthropological idiom, that hunter gatherers live in 'stateless societies', as though their social lives were somehow lacking or unfinished, waiting to be completed by the evolutionary development of a state apparatus. Rather, the principal of their socialty, as Pierre Clastres has put it, is fundamentally against the state.[72]

The Neolithic period

Main article: Neolithic

During the Neolithic period, human societies underwent major cultural and economic changes, including the development of agriculture, the formation of sedentary societies and fixed settlements, increasing population densities, and the use of pottery and more complex tools.[73][74]

Sedentary agriculture led to the development of property rights, domestication of plants and animals, and larger family sizes. It also provided the basis for the centralized state form[75] by producing a large surplus of food, which created a more complex division of labor by enabling people to specialize in tasks other than food production.[76] Early states were characterized by highly stratified societies, with a privileged and wealthy ruling class that was subordinate to a monarch. The ruling classes began to differentiate themselves through forms of architecture and other cultural practices that were different from those of the subordinate laboring classes.[77]

In the past, it was suggested that the centralized state was developed to administer large public works systems (such as irrigation systems) and to regulate complex economies. However, modern archaeological and anthropological evidence does not support this thesis, pointing to the existence of several non-stratified and politically decentralized complex societies.[78]

The state in ancient Eurasia

Mesopotamia is generally considered to be the location of the earliest civilization or complex society, meaning that it contained cities, full-time division of labor, social concentration of wealth into capital, unequal distribution of wealth, ruling classes, community ties based on residency rather than kinship, long distance trade, monumental architecture, standardized forms of art and culture, writing, and mathematics and science.[79] It was the world's first literate civilization, and formed the first sets of written laws.[80][81]

The state in classical antiquity

Painting of Roman Senators encircling Julius Caesar

Although state-forms existed before the rise of the Ancient Greek empire, the Greeks were the first people known to have explicitly formulated a political philosophy of the state, and to have rationally analyzed political institutions. Prior to this, states were described and justified in terms of religious myths.[82]

Several important political innovations of classical antiquity came from the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic. The Greek city-states before the 4th century granted citizenship rights to their free population, and in Athens these rights were combined with a directly democratic form of government that was to have a long afterlife in political thought and history.

The feudal state

See also: Feudalism and Middle Ages

During Medieval times in Europe, the state was organized on the principle of feudalism, and the relationship between lord and vassal became central to social organization. Feudalism led to the development of greater social hierarchies.[83]

The formalization of the struggles over taxation between the monarch and other elements of society (especially the nobility and the cities) gave rise to what is now called the Standestaat, or the state of Estates, characterized by parliaments in which key social groups negotiated with the king about legal and economic matters. These estates of the realm sometimes evolved in the direction of fully-fledged parliaments, but sometimes lost out in their struggles with the monarch, leading to greater centralization of lawmaking and military power in his hands. Beginning in the 15th century, this centralizing process gives rise to the absolutist state.[84]

The modern state

Cultural and national homogenization figured prominently in the rise of the modern state system. Since the absolutist period, states have largely been organized on a national basis. The concept of a national state, however, is not synonymous with nation state. Even in the most ethnically homogeneous societies there is not always a complete correspondence between state and nation, hence the active role often taken by the state to promote nationalism through emphasis on shared symbols and national identity.[85]

See also



  1. The two are especially synonymous when phrased as "the state" and "the government." See "government" under List of words having different meanings in American and British English: A–L.
  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Thompson, Della, ed. (1995). "state". Concise Oxford English Dictionary (9th ed.). Oxford University Press. 3 (also State) a an organized political community under one government; a commonwealth; a nation. b such a community forming part of a federal republic, esp the United States of America
  2. For example, the Vichy France (1940-1944) officially referred to itself as l'État français (the French state).
  3. anne (18 August 2014). "Anatomy of the State" (PDF).
  4. ""state" (definition 5) and "government" (definitions 4, 5, and 6)", Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2015
  5. Cudworth et al., 2007: p. 1
  6. Barrow, 1993: pp. 9-10
  7. Barrow, 1993: pp. 10-11
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  9. Dubreuil, Benoít (2010). Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies: The State of Nature. Cambridge University Press. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-521-76948-8.
  10. Gordon, Scott (2002). Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today. Harvard University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-674-00977-6.
  11. Hay, Colin (2001). Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 1469–1474. ISBN 0-415-14532-5.
  12. Donovan, John C. (1993). People, power, and politics: an introduction to political science. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-8226-3025-8.
  13. Shaw, Martin (2003). War and genocide: organized killing in modern society. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-7456-1907-1.
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